Johannine literature builds off the new commandment given by Jesus that His disciples are to “love one another just as I have loved you” (15:12). Hence, Jesus tells them that “they will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” This itself, however, is built upon a larger theology, where the Son is solely the object of the Father’s love. The Gospel of John, more than any other book, emphasizes the love the Father has for the Son. This statement is spread throughout the book about eight or more times (3:35; 5:20; 10:17; 15:9-10; 17:23-24, 26). As the Father loves the Son, He loves those who are in the Son because they are one with Him (via their faith in, and love for, the Son (14:21, 23; 16:27; 17:23). This love is expressed in obedience to Christ’s commandments.
Jesus replied, if anyone loves Me, he will obey My word and the Father will love him and We will come to him and make Our residence in him. The person who does not love Me does not obey My words. And the word you hear is not Mine, but the Father’s who sent Me. (14:23-24)
Here we see another one of John’s exclusive statements about Christ. The Father loves the one who loves the Son and obeys His Word. This seems to imply that the Father does not love those who do not love the Son and obey Him, simply because in John’s theology, the Father loves the Son, and only in the Son does God, then, have love for those in the world who obey His Son. It is said of the rest of the world that does not obey the Son that they have “the wrath of God remain upon them” (3:36), displaying that God was, and continues to be, against them in His anger. In fact, Christ specifically says in His intercessory prayer to the Father that He is not praying for unbelievers, but only for believers (17:8-9, 20-21). This displays the idea that God’s love is exclusively for the Son and those who He places in the Son by virtue of His drawing them to Him (6:44-45).
What is often overlooked, therefore, is the reason why the Father loves the one who is in the Son. It is because He loves the Son. Hence, the one who is in the Son is also loved by the Father. It becomes important in John, as in the other Gospels, that being in Christ is not merely something that is claimed, but evidenced by one’s loving activity toward the Son and toward those who are in Him. In other words, in John, as in the other Gospels, that loving activity is how one who claims to be a disciple of Christ looks after other disciples of Christ. It should be very clear, however, that the love being talked about is exclusive, as the love of the Father for the Son is exclusive, and the love of the Father and Son for those who are in the Son is exclusive. It does not include unbelievers because unbelievers are not in the Son, and therefore, not loved by the Father in the way He loves the Son and those who are in Him.
Understanding this fact helps the reader understand that the command to “love one another” is a command to love other disciples of Christ because they are one with the Son and represent Him. Hence, to love a disciple is to love the Son, and to love the Son is to love the Father, since the Father loves the Son, and the Son represents the Father. To make the command about loving unbelievers as well would be to miss the point and the reasoning behind John’s argument. The one who loves the Son obeys the Son and the Father loves Him because he believes in and loves the Son. Of course, John is very clear to say that it is the work of the Father Himself that causes anyone to believe in and love the Son. The point is that the command to love one another is given to Christians because it is really a command to love the Father and the Son through one another, i.e., through those who are in the Son and represent Him, as the Son represents and is in the Father.
Hence, whereas the Synoptics explicitly repeat the two greatest commandments for us, John gives us a theological explanation of how they are related to one another. To love a disciple of Jesus Christ is to love Jesus Christ, and to love Jesus Christ is to love the Father. The Son is at the center of it all, and apart from the Son, none of this accomplishes its goal. To love an unbeliever is not to love the Son or the Father. It does not, therefore, identify one as a disciple of Christ simply because it is not a love for Christ. Indeed, the unbelieving world is presented as hating Christ and the disciples, having the wrath of God upon them, and being children of the devil. One might call the desire to see the world repent and come to believe in and love the Son “love”; but it is certainly not the same love John is talking about when he records Christ’s commandment. John’s love is an exclusive love for those in Christ just as the Father’s love is an exclusive love for the Son and those who have become one with Him.
Of course, one will inevitably hear the rebuttal, “But what about John 3:16, which says that God loves the world?” It is, indeed, a good question to ask. What about John 3:16? There are a couple important facts to consider about the verse.
1. The verse is set in a context of exclusivity. Christ has laid out a contrast of those who are born of the Spirit and those who are not, those who are saved and those who are condemned, those who believe in the Son and those who remain under the wrath of God, etc. So this verse is not saying that God loves everyone the same at all.
2. The word kosmos “world” is used many different ways by John. In 1 John 2, we are told not to love the world, and if anyone does love the world the love of the Father is not in him. This would be odd if the word “world” meant the same thing here. One indication of its meaning in 3:16 is that He also says that He gives life to the world, and came that the world might be saved through Him. He clearly does not give life to the entire world. Furthermore, in 17:9 states that He is not praying for the world, but only for those who God has granted to Him out of the world. It seems clear, then, that the word does not mean everyone in the world, but everyone who believes out of the entire world, as opposed to everyone who is of one ethnicity/nation, i.e., Jews/Israel.
3. It is likely the case that the syntax of the Greek should actually be translated as follows: “For in this way God loved the world: that He gave His unique Son so that the one who believes in Him might not perish, but have eternal life.” In other words, we are being told the way that God loves the world. He gives His Son to save believers. That is what the phrase, “God loved the world” actually means. This makes sense in light of the above cited verses that state that Jesus gives life to the world. It does not say that He offers life to the world, but that He gives it to the world. This would only make sense in John’s exclusive context if “world” referred to believers out of the world. This, of course, plays a role in John’s larger theology seen in the Apocalypse, where it is repeatedly stated that God makes His people in Christ out of every tribe, nation, people, and tongue, and this sufficiently constitutes all of the nations coming to worship Christ, even though many among the nations do not.
This revelation will likely come as a shock to evangelicals who are trained from conversion to believe that God loves everyone, a symptom of liberalism, which argues for the Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man, and denies the exclusivity of the gospel. Instead, John makes clear in his Gospel that God loves the elect because He has placed them in His Son. Apart from His Son, He has only a patient wrath for the unbeliever, who Jesus says is condemned already, until all things are consummated in the marriage of the Lamb.
However, John is being consistent with the Old Testament here. God has a common grace upon all on the earth in the sense that He has love for His people, and those upon the earth benefit from God’s care for His people. There is a kind of symbiosis that takes place where believers are benefited by how God uses the unbeliever, and the unbeliever is benefited by God’s love for His people (God saving Egypt in the famine through Joseph is a good example, as he was really saving Israel through saving Egypt).
But it is also clear that God does not love the unbeliever in any sense that is close to the way He loves His Son and those who are in Him. Instead, God is said to hate, not just the sin, but the sinner as well. In fact, two of the seven deadly sins say that God actually hates the person who does those things.
There are six things that YHWH hates, even seven things that are an abomination to Him: . . . a false witness who pours out lies, and a person who spreads discord among covenant members. (Prov 6:16, 18).
Notice that the object of YHWH’s hate in this passage is not the sin, but the sinner. Again, Psalm 11:5 states:
The Lord approves of the godly,
but he hates the wicked and those who love to do violence.
The Psalmist expresses his solidarity with God by stating:
If only you would kill the wicked, O God!
Get away from me, You Men of Bloodshed!
They rebel against You and act deceitfully;
Your enemies blaspheme.
O Lord, do I not hate those who hate You,
And despise those who oppose You?
I absolutely hate them,
They have become my enemies! (139:19-22)
A few other texts exist that explicitly say that God does “hate all who do iniquity” (Ps 5:5), and that He detested the people of the nations who did evil (Lev 20:23). Again, Hosea 9:15 states:
"All their evil is at Gilgal; indeed, I came to hate them there! Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of My house! I will love them no more; All their princes are rebels."
Whereas one might say that this is simply the Old Testament’s warped or incomplete view of God, John clearly would not be comfortable with such a Gnosticizing argument, where the Old Testament is pitted against the New. Instead, he has attempted, throughout his Gospel, to argue that Jesus is not an incarnation of the God everyone got wrong in the Old Testament, but rather that He is the God the Old Testament got right.
Whereas some might argue that Jesus contradicts this in the Sermon on the Mount, He is clear in the sermon that He did not come to annul any of the Law at all, but is, instead, contradicting the wrongful teaching of rabbinic tradition that He labels as “the righteousness of the Pharisees.” They had taken these verses about enemies and applied them within the covenant community to fellow members with whom they were at odds. Yet, the passage in Psalm 139 itself indicates that these people are the enemies of the Psalmist because they are the enemies of God, not His covenant followers. Jesus, therefore, rebukes them for not loving their opponents within the community.
John, of course, wants to emphasize God’s love for His people, not His hate for the wicked. He is not arguing that there is no kind of love given to the unbeliever, but merely that is not the kind of love commanded by Christ to be given to the believer; and it is not the kind of love that identifies one as a follower of Jesus Christ. Hence, his emphasis is on the love the Father has for the Son, the love the Son has for the Father, the love the Son has for the disciples, and the love the disciples are to have for one another. The Son represents the Father, the Spirit represents the Son, and the disciples filled with the Spirit love one another as they love the Son and the Son loves them. The point here is that God’s love, in John, is exclusively given to those within this unified communion. And it is this love for one another that the disciples will be identified as disciples of Jesus Christ. It is not a generic love that identifies them as His disciples, but rather their love for one another due to their love for Him in one another. In other words, their love for Jesus through one another identifies them as disciples of this Jesus who they love. Again, John’s reasoning makes no sense if this love is directed toward an unbeliever in the same way as a disciple who represents Christ. The unbeliever does not represent Christ and therefore would not identify anyone as a disciple specifically of Christ, since pagans love pagans all of them time. It is the love directed at Christ, with Christ as its object, that identifies them as his disciples. The love is merely directed at Christ as represented by His disciples themselves. Hence, to love a disciple because one loves Christ is to love Christ through the disciple, and thus prove himself as a true disciple of Christ himself. John will use this representational argument again in his epistles.
The Johannine Epistles evidence this same line of reasoning in supporting an exclusive view of loving God’s followers as evidence that one is of God, as opposed to just loving people in general. Loving unbelievers in the same way as one loves believers would fly in a contrary trajectory to Johannine theology.
Dear friends, I am not writing a new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have already heard. On the other hand, I am writing a new commandment to you which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. The one who says he is in the light but still hates his fellow Christian is still in the darkness.The one who loves his fellow Christian resides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But the one who hates his fellow Christian is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (2:7-11)
For this is the gospel message that you have heard from the beginning: that we should love one another, not like Cain who was of the evil one and brutally murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his deeds were evil, but his brother’s were righteous. Therefore do not be surprised, brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. We know that we have crossed over from death to life because we love our fellow Christians. The one who does not love remains in death. Everyone who hates his fellow Christian is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him. We have come to know love by this: that Jesus laid down his life for us; thus we ought to lay down our lives for our fellow Christians. But whoever has the world’s possessions and sees his fellow Christian in need and shuts off his compassion against him, how can the love of God reside in such a person? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue but in deed and truth. (3:14-18)
If anyone says “I love God” and yet hates his fellow Christian, he is a liar, because the one who does not love his fellow Christian whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And the commandment we have from him is this: that the one who loves God should love his fellow Christian too. (4:20-21)
Dear friend, you demonstrate faithfulness by whatever you do for the brothers (even though they are strangers). They have testified to your love before the church.You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God. For they have gone forth on behalf of “The Name,” accepting nothing from the pagans. Therefore we ought to support such people, so that we become coworkers in cooperation with the truth. (3 John 1:5-8)
To argue that our loving believers in this way should be primary, but we can still love unbelievers the same way misses John’s point, which is to argue that believers should not be primarily loved in this way, but exclusively. Our love for the unbeliever, in John, as in the rest of the New Testament, is displayed in the sacrifices we make to preach the gospel to them and call them to repentance. As disciples, they would then hold a greater love from us due to their representing God/Christ. Hence, it is an exclusive kind of love because our love for God and His Son is an exclusive kind of love. Instead of supporting the ministries of the world, we support those who represent Christ with our resources. That is loving them differently than the world, who we love by giving them the opportunity through the ministry of the Word to repent and come into the kingdom.